What should liberals do about religion?

Given the uproar earlier this week when Steve Waldman made a couple of guest posts on Political Animal, when he stated that liberals are “hostile” toward evangelicals (including sideline criticism from fellow ScienceBlogger P.Z. Myers), I thought I’d try to chime in with a somewhat more moderate perspective.

I’m a liberal atheist, but I’m married to a Christian who’s become gradually more liberal over the course of our marriage. Greta’s not an evangelical, though, and I don’t think she has much respect for evangelicals. She’ll say things like “if learning something new could destroy my faith, then what kind of faith do I have?” She’s a scientist, and she loves learning new things; she doesn’t see any conflict at all between her science and her faith. Her attitude about science is pretty much indistinguishable from mine; it’s the faith part that’s different.

If you ask Greta what she thinks of Christians who say things like “Dana Reeve deserved to die because she advocated stem cell research,” Greta would say “they aren’t real Christians.” I, on the other hand, would say they’re ignorant assholes. From a political perspective, Greta’s position would probably get a lot more political mileage than mine. But what would I think if liberal politicians started taking this tactic, essentially saying “my Christianity is better than yours”? I don’t think I’d be happy about it, but I’d probably accept it. It’d certainly be better than the tactic of the Democratic party in the middle of last century of embracing bigoted, racist “Southern Democrats” into their coalition.

Religion can be a powerful motivator, though, and I’ve seen it first-hand. At Greta’s church, hundreds of rich people get together every week and have a preacher tell them that the pursuit of wealth is bad, that they should be doing more to help others, that a life of service is better than a life of greed. These people come back week after week, in their Hummers, their Beamers, their Escalades. It sounds a little hypocritical, but it’s better than the alternative — that they never consider that their lifestyle might be wrong.

Maybe the key for me is that at Greta’s church, I never see anyone other than the preachers pointing the finger at someone else and telling them they’re wrong. And even the preacher is only pointing at the members of his or her own congregation, who come voluntarily every week to have the finger pointed at themselves.

The difference between religion and politics is that people aren’t free to choose their government the same way they pick a church. If a politician points the finger at us and tells us we’re doing the wrong thing, we can’t just stay home from America the way we might stay home from church one Sunday. Churches can get away with such in-your-face moralism precisely because we have freedom of religion.

So, the evangelicals cry, if liberals are so high-and-mighty about freedom of religion, why can’t we have prayer in schools? My liberal atheist reaction is this: “because I don’t want your bullshit crammed down my kids’ throats.” Greta’s response would be this: “because as a Presbyterian, I have a particular way I want my kids to pray, and I show them that at church. Freedom of religion is about me choosing where and when to pray, not someone else telling me to do it.” Again, Greta would probably win more votes.

So, are liberals “hostile” toward evangelicals? I think if George Bush was making the liberal case, he’d say “we’re not hostile, we’re liberators! We’re for freedom!” I think I’d phrase it a little more accurately. I’d say a liberal should be hostile toward anyone who’s opposed to freedom of religion, which includes a hell of a lot of evangelicals. If you want to impose your religion on America, then you’re unamerican. I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think religion has the potential to do some good, so I’m opposed to any government imposition or repression of religion. And if that means liberals don’t get elected this year, or next year, or next decade, so be it. That’s where liberals need to draw the line. Somehow I don’t think a lot of evangelicals will be crossing it.

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10 Responses to What should liberals do about religion?

  1. Deep Thought says:

    The uproar about prayer in schools is that kids aren’t allowed to even if they wish to. As a Catholic I am staunchly against prayer led by teachers in public school – but why can’t a kid pray at lunch? Why can’t the Baptist kids pray together before a football game? *That* is what bugs Christians.

  2. dave says:

    Who says kids can’t pray at lunch? What message does it send to the non-Baptist players on a football team when the rest of the team is praying together? Bible clubs are allowed in schools, as long as they don’t take away from official school activities. And of course, anyone can pray at home or at church. What atheists (and many religious people) don’t like is being forced or pressured to pray to a god or in a form they don’t believe in.

  3. Arethusa says:

    Are there seriously schools in the US where teachers or some similar authority is scouting the cafeteria to see if any child is praying over his/her lunch box? If one wants communal prayer at general school events, obviously that’s going to be an issue, but surely nothing is preventing the Baptist kid from sitting on the bench and saying some quick thoughts silently?

    Or have some evangelicals suddenly gone Jewish?

  4. Deep Thought says:

    I know from personal experience that the fear of lawsuits and misunderstanding of the law has resulted in some schools forbidding all prayer. No longer common, it was a problem more wide-spread than you might think just 10 years ago.

    The message the non-Baptist might get is, well, possibly – one of diversity? Inclusion of those unlike you? The multicultural nature of America?

    When Christians speak of prayer in schools, they don’t want *mandated* prayer, they want the ‘ability’ to pray.

  5. dave says:

    “When Christians speak of prayer in schools, they don’t want *mandated* prayer, they want the ‘ability’ to pray.”

    Then I think the dispute comes down to what’s “praying”? If it’s the teacher leading the class in a “voluntary” prayer, then that’s unacceptable to me.

    If it’s a student engaging in solitary prayer — silent during class time, and verbal between classes or during lunch or recess, that’s fine with me, and I expect it’s fine with nearly all Americans.

    The difficulty comes with group prayer. Should a Jew or a Muslim member of the football team be forced to choose between praying to “Jesus” with the rest of the team, or show disunity by sitting out of the prayer. Should Baptists be forced to accept watered down prayers bereft of the symbols most meaningful to them, so that Jews and Muslims are more comfortable participating?

    My preference is that all team members acknowledge that our country is great because it allows everyone to practice religion in a manner of their own choosing, and so be proud not to engage in group prayer during mixed-religion or government-sponsored gatherings.

  6. Deep Thought says:

    No, Christians are speaking of kids being allowed to pray individually or in groups.

    So… America is great because it allows everyone to practice religion in a manner of their own choosing and they should celebrate and honor this by… not. practicing. their. religion…. ?

    I know – I’ll show my respect for the diversity of thought by not exercising my free speech in a manner that others might find compelling, argumentative, or offensive.

    Catholic schools were created to get Catholic children out of public schools where mandatory Protestant prayers and anti-Catholic propaganda were part of the curriculum; I don’t want teachers leading prayers unless it is a private religious school. But your attitude of ‘don’t exercise your religion if it might make someone else feel icky’ is, I am afraid, an attempt to chill my first amendment rights. And it is just this attitude that leads school administrators all over the country to deny the rights of children to practice their religion.

  7. dave says:

    Deep Thought, please don’t bring free speech into this. That’s a buzzword with little meaning in this context. If everyone had “free speech” in school in the way you imply they do, school would be a cacophonous nightmare.

    The issue is not about whether someone feels “icky,” it’s about government imposing religion. When government sponsored organizations endorse group prayer, then freedom of religion is lost — either the religion is so watered down as to be nonreligious, or one religion is favored over others.

  8. Deep Thought says:

    We weren’t discussing “government sponsored prayer”, we were discussing “mixed-religion or government-sponsored gatherings”; you seem to disapprove of prayer in ‘mixed-religion’ gatherings. A bit different than the government leading us in the apostles’ Creed. Also, public school is mandatory; unless you are wealthy, or sacrifice greatly, kids must go. Once there, they are often told not to pray at all.

    More importantly, this is spilling into the public square, as well.

  9. dave says:

    Deep Thought, you misquoted me. I never said “government sponsored prayer.”

    To be clear: I think group prayer in government sponsored gatherings should not be allowed. Exceptions might be made in large organizations like schools, where students could gather for prayer in voluntary after-school Bible study clubs and the like, as long as the school resources aren’t needed for academic activities.

    I think that people, out of respect for others, should not engage in group prayer in mixed religion settings, whether they are government sponsored or not. This is an issue of courtesy, not law. I can imagine a whole host of exceptions to this as well, but those should be worked out among group members, and the government, absolutely, should stay out of the picture.

    I’d be willing to compromise considerably on either of these issues, but those are my ideals.

    It seems you and I are in agreement on teacher-led prayer, which we both agree should not be allowed.

  10. Deep Thought says:

    Again, I think the idea that courtesy should lead to a disinclination to religious practice as slippery. In the 1920’s feminists were the fringe and many people of both sexes were made uncomfortable by their rhetoric; should they have styaed silent in mixed company?

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